All That Experience and No Place to Go

By Philip Rucker and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 19, 2009

The ranks of the nation's unemployed are swelling this week.

As President-elect Barack Obama's team transitions into the federal government tomorrow, President Bush's political appointees will be locked out, and in these tough economic times many of them are scrambling to find new jobs. High-ranking White House loyalists have deluged Washington headhunters with pleas for jobs. Corporations and nonprofit organizations have stopped hiring. With the GOP out of power, jobs on Capitol Hill are scant and K Street lobbying firms have trimmed their golden parachutes.

So this is the new reality: Instead of boasting to friends and colleagues of new jobs in goodbye e-mails, many longtime Bush aides have offered home phone numbers and Gmail and Yahoo e-mail addresses as their new contacts.

"For Republicans, the inn is full," lamented veteran GOP operative Ron Kaufman, a close White House adviser to former president George H.W. Bush and an executive at Dutko Worldwide. "You have lots of folks in the House and Senate on the streets and 3,000 administration appointees on the streets at a time when the job market is shrinking anyways. It's just not a fun time."

Of the roughly 8,000 politically appointed positions in the federal government, hundreds have been vacant since a wave of departures last spring, administration officials said. But appointees who have remained through the final days of the Bush administration have seen an already shaky job market collapse. The traditional avenues of employment for outgoing government officials -- corporations, nonprofit foundations or think tanks -- are clogged because of hiring freezes.

Add to that the November election, in which Republicans lost the White House and dozens of seats in Congress.

"It's a bear market out there, no question, for Republicans leaving the Hill or the administration," said Tom C. Korologos, a longtime Republican adviser and lobbyist who served as Bush's ambassador to Belgium from 2004 to 2007. "In this political business, you live by the sword and die by the sword. . . . You're a caretaker for a while, and all of a sudden there's nothing to take care of and you're gone."

In the current political climate, ties to an unpopular president could hurt candidates. "I think there are people whose connection to the Bush administration will be a kind of taint if they try to stay in Washington," said Calvin Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College.

But the most accomplished public servants will be in demand regardless, said lobbyist Tony Podesta, whose brother, John, co-chairs Obama's transition team.

"I think the reports of their unmarketability are exaggerated," Podesta said. "If you're an economist at Treasury and you're smart and skillful, I don't think the fact that Bush was president and Democrats found him to be unpopular will kill anyone's chances of finding a good job."

"The cream always rises to the top," added Nels Olson, of the executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International. "Those that are the first-rate individuals out of the administration and who have developed good bipartisan relationships and have solid policy experience will be able to make the transition."

Still, one day last week, Michael Castine, also of Korn/Ferry, said he had received calls from half a dozen senior White House aides "who don't have anything in the hopper yet " He said, "They are loyalists who stayed the course and are not sure what they're going to do."

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